On 8th June 1924, British climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine left their high camp on Mount Everest in a bid to reach the summit. Neither returned. They were last seen alive at 12.50pm as they surmounted an obstacle on the Northeast Ridge, not far from the base of the final pyramid. They were “going strong for the top”. But whether the pair were the first to reach the summit, 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and how they came by their deaths, remain a mystery.
Mallory and Irvine were last seen by their fellow climber Noel Odell. This account of what he saw has captivated climbers and historians ever since:
At 12.50, just after I had emerged from a state of jubilation at finding the first definite fossils on Everest, there was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere, and the entire summit ridge and final peak of Everest were unveiled. My eyes became fixed on one tiny black spot silhouetted on a small snow-crest beneath a rock-step in the ridge; the black spot moved. Another black spot became apparent and moved up the snow to join the other on the crest. The first then approached the great rock-step and shortly emerged at the top; the second did likewise. Then the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud once more.
George Herbert Leigh Mallory (1886-1924)
I have never known a man so entirely dominated by the spirit within him. F. E. Norton
George Mallory was considered to be one of the most talented climbers of his generation. He grew up in the Cheshire village of Mobberley and was educated at Winchester College, where he was introduced to Alpine climbing by his housemaster Graham Irving. He went up to Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1905 to study history and was later elected Captain of Boats for 1908. At university, his friends included such luminaries as Rupert Brook, James Strachey, and Maynard and Geoffrey Keynes. It was also at Cambridge that Mallory met a future climbing partner and mentor in the renowned mountaineer Geoffrey Winthrop Young.
Mallory left Cambridge in 1910 and took a teaching post at Charterhouse School, where his pupils included the poet Robert Graves. Around this time, Mallory completed a biography of James Boswell and fell in love with Ruth Turner. They were married in 1914 and had three children together. George's father had by then changed the family name to Leigh-Mallory, resulting in a cumbersome formation of Mallory's full name on the register. During the First World War, between 1916 and 1918, Mallory served on the Western Front as an artillery officer.
Having climbed extensively in Britain and the Alps, Mallory was invited to join the first Everest expedition in 1921 and was instrumental in the initial reconnaissance the mountain. He returned to Everest in 1922 and spent much of the following year lecturing in Britain and the United States on the challenges met by the two expeditions. Once, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he is famously said to have replied: "Because it is there". In 1924, Mallory moved his young family to Cambridge, where he took an extra-mural teaching post. In February of that year, he left England with the third expedition to Everest, of which he was later made climbing leader.
Andrew (Sandy) Comyn Irvine (1902-1924)
He was obsessed to go 'all out' on what was certainly to him the greatest course for 'pairs' he would ever be destined to 'row'. N. E. Odell
Sandy Irvine grew up in Birkenhead and was educated at Shrewsbury School, where he was appointed Head of Moore's House and Captain of Boats for his final year. As a young man during the war, he took an interest in engineering and made a number of inventions in the field of aircraft technology. At Shrewsbury, Sandy was part of the school's resurgence in rowing, sitting at '4' in the crew that won the Elsenham Cup (for schools and Oxbridge colleges) at the Henley 'Peace' Regatta of 1919. Two years later, his crew became only the second school crew ever to break the course seven-minute barrier.
Early in 1922, Sandy went up to Merton College, Oxford to study chemistry and to row with the Oxford University Boat Club. He rowed in two Boat Races, beating Cambridge in 1923, Oxford's only victory between 1913 and 1937. In the same year, Sandy joined the Merton College Arctic Expedition to Spitsbergen, and it was from this expedition that he knew Noel Odell, who successfully proposed him for the 1924 Everest expedition. Sandy's mountaineering experience was limited to his climbs in Spitsbergen, the Lake District and North Wales, where his feats included riding a motorbike over Foel Grach in the Carneddau range. During the expedition to Everest, Sandy practically rebuilt the unreliable oxygen apparatus, making it much lighter and easier to use.
Ascensiones in corde suo disposuit. Ps. lxxxiv. 5
Windows and Mountains
There are memorials to George Mallory in the parish church at Mobberley, Cheshire and in Cloisters at Winchester College. Mallory Court at Magdalene College, Cambridge was named in his memory. There are memorials to Sandy Irvine in the chapel at Shrewsbury School and in the gardens of Merton College, Oxford. A stained glass window dedicated to both men and their time on Everest can be found in the South Cloister at Chester Cathedral. Mount Mallory (13,850 feet) and Mount Irvine (13,770 feet) are located in the Sierra Nevada, California, United States.
Plaque at Base Camp
In 2004 a plaque was dedicated at Everest base camp in memory of Sandy Irvine and fellow old boy of Shrewsbury School Guy Lovett, who had conceived of the project to honour Sandy before he too met an early death. For more information about this Old Salopian expedition, click here.
Holzel and Salkeld provide what is probably the best introduction to the 1924 expedition and Mallory and Irvine’s last climb. For background to the discovery of Mallory's body in 1999, Hemmleb, Johnson and Simonson are indispensable. The best biographies of Mallory and Irvine are by the Gillmans and Julie Summers respectively. The pre-war expedition reports are often difficult to find, but are included here for reference purposes. Information on Jochen Hemmleb’s recent German-language book can be found here.
Jochen Hemmleb, Larry Johnson & Eric Simonson, Ghosts of Everest, 1999
Tom Holzel & Audrey Salkeld, The Mystery of Mallory and Irvine, 2000 edition
Peter Gillman & Leni Gillman, The Wildest Dream: Mallory, His Life and Conflicting Passions, 2000
Julie Summers, Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine, 2001 paperback edition
Conrad Anker & David Roberts, The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest, 2001 paperback edition
David Breashears & Audrey Salkeld, Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory, 1999
Herbert Carr, The Irvine Diaries, 1979
Peter Firstbrook, Lost on Everest: The Search for Mallory and Irvine, 2003 paperback edition
Jochen Hemmleb, Tartort Mount Everest - Der Fall Mallory, 2009
Jochen Hemmleb & Eric Simonson, Detectives on Everest, 2002
Reinhold Messner, The Second Death of George Mallory, 2001
David Robertson, George Mallory, 1999 paperback edition
Sir Francis Younghusband, The Epic of Mount Everest, 2000 edition
Pre-war Expedition Reports
Lieut.-Col. C. K. Howard-Bury et al, Mount Everest: The Reconnaissance 1921, 1922
Brig. Gen. C. G. Bruce et al, The Assault on Mount Everest 1922, 1923
Lieut.-Col. E. F. Norton et al, The Fight for Everest 1924, 1925
Hugh Ruttledge, Everest 1933, 1934
Altitude Films, The Wildest Dream, 2010
Capt. John Noel, The Epic of Everest, 1924 (Restored by the BFI with a newly commissioned score and re-released in 2013)
Simon Fisher Turner, The Epic of Everest, 2013 (see above)
Jeffery Archer, Paths of Glory, 2009